Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Beggar Maid: Economics and Alice Munro

I can't allow our Nobel-fest to come to a close without a post about Alice Munro. The Canadian recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature is in some ways a perfect complement to the Fama-Hansen-Shiller trio.

The word economics has its origins in the Greek okionomia, or management of household affairs. Munro's short stories are often categorized as domestic-- which similarly means of or related to the running of a home. Her writing is economic in many senses of the word, in both style and theme. Poverty, desire, selfishness, and self-determination are among the themes she treats with the most skill and nuance.

These themes emerge most notably, perhaps, in "The Beggar Maid," published in 1977, which tells the story of Rose, a college student on scholarship. The title alludes to "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid," an 1884 painting by Edward Burne-Jones, based on an earlier Elizabethan ballad and a poem by Lord Tennyson. King Cophetua, as you might guess, falls in love with a beggar maid-- or perhaps with the idea of the beggar maid and the beautiful simplicity her poverty represents to him. Munro's story contrasts the romanticization of poverty with the actual experience of poverty.

The story begins, "Patrick Blatchford was in love with Rose." The sentence construction-- with Rose in the passive position--is telling. Rose is given room and board with a female English professor, Dr. Henshawe. Her living situation also arises from her passivity: "She had got to live with Dr. Henshawe by accident." She enrolls in (and despises) an introductory economics course not of her own volition, but because Dr. Henshawe tells her to.

Dr. Henshawe, even before Patrick, romanticizes Rose's poverty; she "liked poor girls, bright girls, but they had to be fairly good- looking girls." Rose satisfies the requirements; she is, so to speak, "working class," although "Before she came to Dr. Henshawe’s, Rose had never heard of the working class." Rose's perception of her family home is altered by her stay with Dr. Henshawe:
"What Dr. Henshawe’s house and Flo’s house did best, in Rose’s opinion, was discredit each other. In Dr. Henshawe’s charming rooms there was always for Rose the raw knowledge of home, an indigestible lump, and at home now her sense of order and modulation elsewhere exposed such embarrassing sad poverty in people who never thought themselves poor. Poverty was not just wretchedness, as Dr. Henshawe seemed to think, it was not just deprivation. It meant having those ugly tube lights and being proud of them. It meant continual talk of money and malicious talk about new things people had bought and whether they were paid for. It meant pride and jealousy flaring over something like the new pair of plastic curtains, imitating lace, that Flo had bought for the front window. That as well as hanging your clothes on nails behind the door and being able to hear every sound from the bathroom. It meant decorating your walls with a number of admonitions, pious and cheerful and mildly bawdy."
One day, in the library, a strange man touches Rose on the leg and then scurries off. "It didn’t seem to her a sexual touch; it was more like a joke, though not at all a friendly one." Rose doesn't particularly want to do anything about it, but she feels the need to tell someone what happened. This is how she comes to meet Patrick, who by chance is studying in a nearby carrel, and how he comes to fall in love with her.
"If she had been trying to make him fall in love with her, there was no better way she could have chosen. He had many chivalric notions, which he pretended to mock, by saying certain words and phrases as if in quotation marks. 'The fair sex,' he would say, and 'damsel in distress.'"
We are told right away about Patrick that "his family was rich." Immediately thereafter comes the following passage, in which he is called poor:
He arrived early to pick Rose up, when they were going to the movies. He wouldn’t knock, he knew he was early. He sat on the step outside Dr. Henshawe’s door. This was in the winter, it was dark out, but there was a little coach lamp beside the door. 
“Oh, Rose! Come and look!” called Dr. Henshawe, in her soft, amused voice, and they looked down together from the dark window of the study. “The poor young man,” said Dr. Henshawe tenderly... She called Patrick poor because he was in love, and perhaps also because he was a male, doomed to push and blunder. Even from up here he looked stubborn and pitiable, determined and dependent, sitting out there in the cold.
Rose does not comprehend at first just how rich Patrick is, and seems to view him with a combination of pity and disgust, especially concerning "that flinching, that lack of faith, that seemed to be revealed in all transactions with Patrick." Notice the use of the word transactions to describe their interactions. The transactional language continues in the following passage, the heart of the story:
"She could not turn Patrick down. She could not do it. It was not the amount of money but the amount of love he offered that she could not ignore; she believed that she felt sorry for him, that she had to help him out. It was as if he had come up to her in a crowd carrying a large, simple, dazzling object — a huge egg, maybe, of solid silver, something of doubtful use and punishing weight — and was offering it to her, in fact thrusting it at her, begging her to take some of the weight of it off him. If she thrust it back, how could he bear it? But that explanation left something out. It left out her own appetite, which was not for wealth but for worship. The size, the weight, the shine, of what he said was love (and she did not doubt him) had to impress her, even though she had never asked for it. It did not seem likely such an offering would come her way again. Patrick himself, though worshipful, did in some oblique way acknowledge her luck."
Whereas economists study commercial transactions that are by necessity and construction mutually beneficial to both parties, here we observe human relational transactions that are at best doubtful, at worst punishing. Patrick becomes the beggar, Rose the king (the object of worship); neither quite knows what they offer or what they receive in return, yet neither is free to decline to transact. We can't help feeling that Patrick and Rose's "transactions" are as violating as the stranger's unwelcome touch of her leg.

Patrick repeatedly tells Rose how "lovely" and "charming" her poverty has made her. He does not understand her experience of poverty, nor she his of tremendous wealth. Then they visit each other's family homes. In preparation for her visit to Patrick's parents' house, "She had sold more blood and bought a fuzzy angora sweater, peach-colored, which was extremely messy and looked like a small-town girl’s idea of dressing up. She always realized things like that as soon as a purchase was made, not before." When she arrives,
"Size was noticeable everywhere and particularly thickness. Thickness of towels and rugs and handles of knives and forks, and silences. There was a terrible amount of luxury and unease."
The trip to visit her stepmother is no better. Actual poverty is not romantic, not beautiful. Afterwards, Patrick says, “'Your real parents can’t have been like that.'” 
"Rose did not like his saying that either, though it was what she believed herself. She saw that he was trying to provide for her a more genteel background, perhaps something like the homes of his poor friends: a few books about, a tea tray, and mended linen, worn good taste; proud, tired, educated people. What a coward he was, she thought angrily, but she knew that she herself was the coward, not knowing any way to be comfortable with her own people or the kitchen or any of it. Years later she would learn how to use it, she would be able to amuse or intimidate right-thinking people at dinner parties with glimpses of her early home. At the moment she felt confusion, misery."
Despite her confusion and misery, Rose agrees to marry Patrick, at which point he gives up his plans to be an academic historian in favor of a lucrative position at his father's company (he previously forswore going into business.) Rose grows ever more miserable until she finally confronts him to call off the wedding, climatically declaring, 
"I don’t have to know what I want to know what I don’t want!"
We believe she has at last taken control of her own destiny. Not long after, though, she spots him in his carrel and has an "barely resistible" temptation to throw herself at him, beg his forgiveness, restore his happiness.
"It was not resistible, after all. She did it."
She neither knows her preferences nor controls her actions. We remember how she hated her economics class, where she probably learned about  homo economicus, the hyper-rational, hyper-calculating representative agent with well-defined preferences. When Jane Smiley presented Munro the Man Booker Prize in 2009, she said, “Millions of readers pick up an Alice Munro story and react with a kind of galvanised self-recognition.” No one wants to recognize herself in homo economicus, the main character of our economics Nobelists (with very mild deviations by Shiller). We want, we believe we want, to be human and distinct, romantic and idealistic. We recognize ourselves in Munro's stories, but it is not a comfortable recognition. Her characters are not exactly homo economicus but neither are they who we want to be. It is not so simple to separate our desires for money, love, sex, worship, power. We can see life "in economic terms" and not, as she describes at the end of the story. The end is told from Rose's perspective many years later, after her ten year marriage to Patrick and eventual divorce.
"When Rose afterward reviewed and talked about this moment in her life...she said that comradely compassion had overcome her, she was not proof against the sight of a bare bent neck. Then she went further into it, and said greed, greed. She said she had run to him and clung to him and overcome his suspicions and kissed and cried and reinstated herself simply because she did not know how to do without his love and his promise to look after her; she was frightened of the world and she had not been able to think up any other plan for herself. When she was seeing life in economic terms, or was with people who did, she said that only middle-class people had choices anyway, that if she had had the price of a train ticket to Toronto her life would have been different. 
Nonsense, she might say later, never mind that, it was really vanity, it was vanity pure and simple, to resurrect him, to bring him back his happiness. To see if she could do that. She could not resist such a test of power."


  1. Anonymous7:52 PM

    Who's Peter?

    1. Oops, I meant Patrick. Will correct it.

    2. Anonymous9:28 PM

      Hehe, sorry to be Joe copy editor. I know that's exactly the response that says, yes I read your work and really got it. But I did enjoy that very much, especially given how much it reminded me of the sorts of things one had to write in school. I bet your profs didn't cringe when they got your papers. ;)

  2. Anonymous5:57 AM

    In the Fama vs. Shiller debate , my $ is still with Fama being that bubbles are nearly impossible to predict expect in hindsight; otherwise you could short stocks with characteristics of bubbles, but no one has been able do this consistently to achieve excess returns. The dotcom 'bubble' in retrospect was rational when you consider some of the stocks that didn't die became hugely successful like Amazon and eBay, and the overall growth of the internet usage & commerce. Investors in the late 90's were paying high premiums for the expectations growth, which was eventually a decade+ later realized.

    1. I think you should weaken that proposition. The stock market bubble of the 1990s and the housing bubble of the 2000s were easy to predict and, indeed, predicted by many. You probably want to say that there can be bubbles that cannot be predicted, not that bubbles can't be predicted.

      (My favorite bubble indicator is a billboard on route 101 between Port Angeles and Sequim. When the supply of investors in the major population centers starts running low that billboard is used to bring in a new supply from the hinterland. I am sure it is just luck, but it predicted the last two bubbles by about eight months, offering stock investment opportunties and later real estate investment opportunities. I am hoping it will not be taken down as part of the current highway widening project as it provides an awfully useful public service.)

  3. “Millions of readers pick up an Alice Munro story and react with a kind of galvanised self-recognition.” I only read this review, but I can agree.

  4. Anonymous1:20 PM

    Great post. I started reading Noahpinion about a year ago, at a time when I was trying to decide whether to enter an economics program myself. I ended up deciding against it (no fault of Noah's), but if econ was more like this post, maybe I would have made it.

    1. Thanks, and good luck with whatever you decided to do instead!

  5. Anonymous1:58 PM

    Economists should write a lot more about these kinds of things, and a lot less about the kinds of things they actually do write about.

  6. Anonymous2:13 PM

    I like this blog because you tend to learn more here than at many other econ blogs where there is more of an overt political agenda. There have been many posts here that I have benefited from.

    However, I think this is the most thought-provoking post I've read. This one will stick with me.

  7. Anonymous3:47 PM

    With due respect to its financial and reputational muscle, I would question the effrontery with which the Nobel foundation has arrogated to itself the right to pontificate, seemingly on behalf of the entire humanity (most of which is voiceless), on such large things as Peace and Literature.
    Both a serial killer and a mass murderer kill a lot of people: while the serial killer kills them one at a time, or in series, the mass murderer kills them all at once, or en masse. Combining the two, we get a serial mass murderer, and the most successful of these, Henry Kissinger, was given the Nobel Prize for Peace.
    Adolf Hitler hated Jews and killed six million of them over a period lasting several years. Winston Churchill thought that Hindus were a beastly people and killed three to five millions Bengali peasants, not all of them Hindus, in a single year. Churchill was given the Nobel Prize for Literature.
    I understand that the Nobel foundation is in financial trouble. Perhaps one day a hedge fund manager will manage to kill the Nobel foundation, a feat for which even the joint bestowal of all three Nobel Prizes, for Peace, for Literature, and for Economics, may not be an adequate enough reward.

    Kanchhedia Chamaar

  8. I've never picked up an Alice Munro book, but couldn't help reading through your entire post anyways. Very good. Look forward to another econ/english lit post.

  9. Great angle on the book!